Next week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway marks the end of an era for NASCAR’s longest-serving TV pit reporter, who celebrates his 70th birthday at Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
|Berggren (L) with NASCAR On FOX|
colleagues Steve Byrnes. Krista Voda
and Matt Yocum
Don’t think for a second that Berggren is leaving NASCAR TV. It’s in his blood, and he assures his friends that he will still be found at some racetrack or another on a weekly basis. It may be smaller and less grandiose than the Cup venues at which he has spent the past three-plus decades, but he’ll be there.
“After the FOX portion of the year ends, I’ve always traveled to local tracks where I still enjoy sitting in the stands with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other, watching the local heroes,” said Berggren, whose claim to fame was once hustling a fire-breathing, fuel-injected dirt supermodified around the Maine’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway, twisting it so tight that he spent most of the feature on three wheels and was affectionately known as `Doctor Dirt.’ “I can’t get enough of local-level racing,” he said, “so I’ll do more of that now.”
The founder of Speedway Illustrated magazine said that in addition to contributing stories and columns to the publication, he also has lofty goals and projects to which he can dedicate his newfound spare time. The Massachusetts resident has founded a corporation dedicated to building an auto racing museum on the grounds of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He has already signed an agreement with the speedway, been awarded tax-exempt status by the IRS and recruited a powerful Board of Directors.
“There is no museum of Northeast auto racing open to the public in general that displays the area’s racing history,” Berggren said. “The Northeast has a rich racing history that deserves to be saved and displayed. We’re fund raising and accumulating things to display.
“Getting the museum up and running is a big job, and it’ll take a lot of my time.”
"I still enjoy sitting in the stands with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other. I can’t get enough of local-level racing, so I’ll do more of that now.” -- Dr. Dick Berggren
Berggren, who earned a PhD in psychology before becoming a college professor, admits he wasn’t always adept at time management. In fact, he nearly didn’t graduate from high school after spending too many days chasing his dream of driving race cars.
“I couldn’t have cared less about school, especially with a couple of garages on my way home to stop at,” Berggren recalled. “I didn’t do homework, didn’t study and didn’t pay attention in class. Only around 20 of 616 students in my graduating class had a lower grade point average than I. All I wanted to do was to be involved in racing.”
After graduation, Berggren quickly realized that even two jobs weren’t enough to fund his racing career, concluding that a college diploma was his only ticket.
|Berggren with an early supermodified. |
And more hair.
“But I couldn’t get into the colleges I applied to -- not with my grades,” he admitted. “I finally found one that would take anyone who could pay the tuition. My parents paid the bill and I was on my way. With the motivation to do well so I could race, I paid attention, did my homework and focused on my education. I earned terrific grades in college -- good enough to get into Tufts University’s graduate school on a full scholarship, where I earned an MS and then a PhD in psychology. And then, I got a job that paid well enough that I could afford to race.”
Following graduate school, Berggren accepted a position teaching at an all-women’s Catholic college in Boston. Once again, however, his love of racing got in the way. Following a weekend at the track, the professor drove to work in his mud-covered pickup truck with a Sprint Car still on the back.
“I parked the rig, which had my name on it, in the faculty parking lot,” Berggren recalled “It was there about 10 minutes when I was paged to the president’s office. Sister wanted to know what that ‘thing’ was in the parking lot. She explained to me it had to be off college property immediately. Well, I wasn’t about to park my race car on a Boston street. So, I disobeyed the college president and left the rig in the faculty lot all day. I knew my teaching job was over.”
The college’s loss was racing’s gain, as he took a job editing Stock Car Racing Magazine and began working as a track announcer at local speedways. Those positions eventually led to his current TV gig.
The only thing that ultimately ended Berggren’s driving career was Berggren himself. His racing days came to a screeching halt with a wreck in the IMCA Nationals in Boone, Iowa, in which he initially feared he’d killed hundreds of spectators and issued a desperate plea to God.
“In one of my heats, I got turned at the end of the backstretch -- the highest-speed part of the track,” Berggren explained. “So many people were in the pits, they had overflowed to an area that wasn’t separated from the racing surface by anything other than a dirt bank. When I got turned, that’s where the car headed. I tried to go hard left and kept my leg in it, hoping the car would straighten out and go back down the track. It didn’t.
“I hit that dirt bank and saw hundreds of people scatter as I headed for them,” he said. “I’m not a religious person, but in the car that night, I said a prayer as I hit the dirt bank. ‘God, if you get me through this without hurting anyone, I won’t do this anymore.’ I closed my eyes, hit the bank, flew through the air and crashed into the pits. As the car stopped, a guy stuck his head in the window and asked if I was OK. With my eyes still closed, I asked how many people were under the car. ‘You didn’t hit anyone,’ he said. I climbed out and that was it. You don’t go back on a promise like that. It’s hard, because I’ve been offered rides in cars I dearly would like to race. But I won’t.”
|"Doctor Dirt" (#80) in hot pursuit!|
All said, Berggren’s 20-year racing career spanned stock cars, sprint cars and supermodifieds, including numerous feature wins, the majority in dirt track sprint cars. He was elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2002, and is a member of a number of other Halls. Berggren has also been the recipient of many prestigious awards for journalism, including the 1999 Cunningham Writer of the Year Award presented by the National Motorsports Press Association.
He will be remembered most, however, for the indelible mark he made outside the race car, as a reporter, commentator and tireless crusader for safety.
“As a colleague and friend, Dick has had no equal in the 40-plus years I’ve been in this business,” Joy said. “Whatever the event, Dick by far is the best-prepared pit reporter this business has ever known, and he always has brought a great degree of professionalism to every telecast he has worked.”
Not surprisingly, keying his microphone one final time at Dover will not be easy for Berggren. Anyone who knows the man in the trademark cap knows how bittersweet the moment will be.
“Life will be different without FOX,” admitted Berggren this week. “I’m very proud of having been part of the NASCAR on FOX broadcasts from the beginning. I’m dreading the 2013 Daytona 500 because I won’t be there on pit road as part of that team. It will be hard, but nothing is forever and I understand that. I’m looking forward to walking into the museum on the day it opens. That’s a whole new challenge and one I fully expect to conquer. But it’s time to move on.
“I’m ready,” he said. “However, it would be nice to pick up a few TV things here and there. I’d really like that.”
As would his NASCAR colleagues and fans the world over.
Photo Credits: KristaVoda.net, TheChromeHorn.com